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What not to say to a woman with no hair

Carly Severn lost her hair at age 19 to alopecia.
Carly Severn/KQED
Carly Severn lost her hair at age 19 to alopecia.

Updated March 28, 2022 at 8:53 AM ET

Editor's note: This 2015 essay refers to the hair loss condition that Jada Pinkett Smith has, which Chris Rock joked about during Sunday night's Oscars. Smith's husband, Will Smith, took to the stage to slap Rock for his comments.

In a culture that associates women's hair with beauty, health and desirability, losing it can be a momentous prospect. Women can experience hair loss for a variety of reasons: through medical issues, cancer treatment, the aging process or a surprisingly common condition called alopecia.

That last one is what I have: alopecia. It's thought to be an autoimmune condition, meaning that the body attacks itself. It can result in partial or total loss of hair, and can affect the head or the entire body.

The National Alopecia Areata Foundation estimates that more than 6.6 million people in the United States and 147 million worldwide have, had or will develop alopecia areata. In the most common type, sufferers find dime-sized patches of hair loss on their head. Alopecia can be temporary or permanent, and there's no 100 percent-effective treatment.

Having lost all my hair at age 19, I've been "hair-free" (my personal rebrand) for a decade now. My colleagues at KQED Forum recently invited me to be part of a discussion about women and hair loss.

In addition to working at KQED, I also write my EyelineHer blog for women losing their hair — for any reason — dedicated to the practical tips and beauty tricks I've learned over 10 years of being the ultimate "blank canvas."

But what if you're the loved one, friend or colleague who's watching someone going through hair loss — a period of often rapid transition in which their appearance changes dramatically — and you have no idea what to say?

We all get tongue-tied. So as someone who has heard it all, here's my take on what not to say to someone experiencing hair loss to help you avoid worrying about causing inadvertent upset or offense, because how else would you know? Plus a few things you can say and do.

What not to say:

"I wish I could wear headscarves/wigs too!"

People who say this are so well-meaning, because they're trying to offer a positive spin on the situation. But it's not helpful for someone who suddenly has to wear a headscarf or wig to hear this from someone with hair, who actually has a choice in the matter. At the very least, it comes off as insincere.

"I'm jealous; it must take you no time at all to get ready in the morning!"

Someone who's just lost their hair would gladly trade in their alleged extra half-hour in the morning for their hair back, believe me. And for most hair-free types, the reverse is actually true: If you use makeup to re-create eyebrows and eyelashes, this takes much longer than a "normal" makeup routine, at least initially. The best you'll get here is a strained smile.

"Ugh, I'm having such a bad hair day."

This one is so easy to blurt out, and most people wouldn't bat an eyelid at you saying this — unless they've just lost their hair. The most mundane hair comments can cut deeply for people in the midst of hair loss. So if you do utter it, the best remedy is to apologize immediately with the words, "I am a total idiot, sorry," and breeze on through like it never happened.

"It'll come back though, right?"

Otherwise known as "the infuriating amateur diagnosis." The last person who said this to me was the lady at the DMV after I submitted my request to wear my cap in my drivers license photo. I jokingly replied, "That's news to me, sweetheart!" She did not laugh. Yes, many folks who lose their hair do get it back. Many don't. If all you want in the world is for your hair to come back, hearing Dr. Unqualified telling you what they "think" is going to happen with your medical condition can be a bit of a kick in the pants, even if it's coming from a good place.

"My friend tried X and it worked for her!"

Trust me: The raw, vulnerable relative or friend in front of you does not want to hear about your acquaintance who tried yoga/steroids/guano masques/snake oil. They're already being bombarded with Google ads about that stuff. They're almost certainly in touch with a variety of medical professionals about the best route forward. Leave your contact out of it. Unless, of course, that contact is also a scientist who's just announced 100 percent success in a peer-reviewed clinical hair-loss trial of 500 subjects. Then go right ahead.

"It's only hair."

Yes, it's only hair. But to a woman who's just lost hers, it's never "only" hair. It will be soon, but not right now. Wait until they're the one saying this line. Then it's an awesome mantra.

And here's what you should do:

Laugh at their hair-loss jokes.

Using humor, often very dark humor, can feel really good for people losing their hair (or people losing anything, for that matter). Try to get over any awkwardness you might feel and laugh along with them, even if it's shocked laughter. (Do not attempt to make the same jokes yourself. Trust me.)

Send them inspiration.

So aggrieved was I by the utter paucity of hair-free role models for my female blog readers that I made this Pinterest board of famous (and not-so-famous) women looking absolutely incredible with no hair. We live in a culture that relentlessly associates hair with femininity, and positive representations of women without hair can be hard to find. So, there — I did it for you.

Tell them they look great

Just do it. Repeatedly.

In 2015, Carly Severn was a social media specialist at KQED. She is now Senior Engagement Editor.

Copyright 2015 KQED

Carly Severn